SAN JOSE — One of the first things I noticed on arriving in Costa Rica were the billboards advertising “Retirement Tours.” I wondered, aloud, who went on these tours.
Our cab driver explained, in perfect English, that the tours were for foreigners contemplating retirement in Costa Rica.
“Do a lot of foreigners retire here after taking the tours?” I asked the driver.
“Lots,” the driver replied, without a moment’s hesitation. “Many Americans.”
During my Costa Rica travels, I met hordes of older Americans I naively assumed were tourists. Some of them informed me, indignantly, that “we live here.” There are enough Americans in this tiny country that a friend recently joked that Costa Rica is turning into a US colony.
More and more Americans are choosing to retire overseas in countries where the dollar will go further. The US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, estimates that close to 7.6 million US citizens are living abroad, though it is hard to say how many are retirees.
Central America is a popular retirement destination, but Costa Rica might easily be the most sought-after country because of its political stability, safety, affordability, great weather, and thriving economy.
Currently, about 12,000 US citizens living in Costa Rica have residency, a status similar to the Green Card, but there are many who live here on tourist visas, leaving the country every 90 days to renew their documents.
“Costa Rica has been a popular retirement destination for about 30 years,” says Jason Holland, InternationalLiving.com’s Costa Rica editor. “It is difficult to say how many US citizens actually live here because some are here all year, others anywhere from three to nine months, and many don’t seek residency, so the numbers are hard to track.”
Estimating numbers of retirees is further complicated because Costa Rican law allows tourists to purchase property and Americans are buying real estate as an investment or with the idea of someday retiring here.
It is easy to see why Costa Rica is so desirable. There is enough of the exotic — lush jungles, pristine beaches, wildlife — and enough of the familiar — malls, pancake and pizza places, and movie theaters — to lure almost anyone. Add Costa Rican hospitality to the mix and its attractiveness grows; it is a country where Americans are liked and welcomed.
The biggest draw, perhaps, is the quality of life Costa Rica offers for much less than one would spend in the United States.
The Yeatmans from Baltimore retired here six years ago. Paul, then 62, realized his pension wasn’t enough for him and his wife, Gloria, to live the way they wanted to in the United States. So Gloria, then 52, retired early and the couple made four trips to Costa Rica in 2008, including a retirement tour, before moving in 2009.
The Yeatmans live in San Ramon town in Central Valley, popular among expats because of its year-round springlike weather and closeness to capital city San Jose’s modern conveniences. Paul, now 68, and Gloria, 58, say they live as they always wanted to and still spend 30 percent less than their US budget, despite Costa Rica being one of the most expensive Central American countries.
“We have a car and a computer,” Paul says. “Our standard of living is the same as in the United States, but our quality of life is so much better here.”
What Paul is talking about is “Pura vida,” a uniquely Costa Rican attitude toward life that means to live simply, at a slower pace, savoring every moment.
“When people here say ‘manana’, it doesn’t mean tomorrow,” Gloria laughs. “It just means ‘not today.’ ”
The Yeatmans have embraced this way of life and say they look forward to each day.
“We will probably die here,” Paul declares.
The Yeatmans’ transition has been so positive that they want others to have a similar experience. They now conduct retirement tours and blog about their experiences at www.retireforlessincostarica.com.
One of the biggest advantages for immigrant retirees with legal residency is the access to high-quality, government healthcare, Caja (Costarricense de Seguro Social), ranked number one in Latin America and in the top 20 worldwide.
“The doctor’s office may not be wallpaper and flowers, but the care is good,” Gloria says. “And even if you aren’t covered under Caja, private doctor’s office visits and procedures are very affordable.”
Gloria discovered this when she underwent a biopsy, at no charge, through Caja but was told she would have to wait a few months for the results. She wanted the results quickly and took the biopsy sample to a private laboratory, which tested it immediately and charged her less than $25.
“Health care here is so affordable and of high-enough quality that ‘medical vacations’ to Costa Rica are becoming popular,” says Holland.
It isn’t just retirees that are moving to Costa Rica, but also younger people, often with families.
Greg and Jen Seymour moved from Dallas to Grecia in the Central Valley two years ago. They wanted to get away from their stressful lives and live the pura vida way.
“This slower pace of life might get to some but it is fine with us,” says Greg, 43, author of “Living in and Visiting Costa Rica: 100 Tips, Tricks, Traps, and Facts.” “We aren’t as driven as we were in Dallas. I have lost 40 pounds and am off my blood pressure medication.”
“It is also how we cook,” says Jen, 45, who has authored her own book, “Costa Rica Chica,” on simplifying life and retiring in Costa Rica. “We buy fresh produce from farmer’s markets and almost never eat processed foods like we did in Dallas.”
“The pura vida way of life is misleading,” Holland says. “People here are industrious and hardworking. They just put family first.”
Not all Americans relocate successfully. Often, people visit a resort area, love it, and decide to move to Costa Rica. It is only after they move that reality sets in: Living here is very different from vacationing here. They are frustrated by the bureaucracy and inefficiency, the flipside of pura vida.
Others are unable to embrace the simple life and try to live the way they did in the United States — a recipe for disaster as, for instance, electronic goods, processed foods, and toiletries are prohibitively expensive in Costa Rica. A bottle of suntan lotion costs $18.
It also remains to be seen how long Costa Ricans will continue to welcome the influx of Americans. In popular beach towns, Americans are buying up property at rates much higher than their actual values, hiking prices and pushing real estate out of reach for many Costa Ricans.
Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at sena firstname.lastname@example.org .